Stewardship and the ownership question
17th May 2022
Authors: John van der Velden is a socialist writer living in Canberra, Australia. Rob White is emeritus distinguished professor of criminology at the University of Tasmania. They are authors of The Extinction Curve: Growth and Globalisation in the Climate Endgame.
We welcome the opportunity to contribute to Emerald's stewardship for a fairer society project. A concept of stewardship or custodianship is central to transitioning from our current unsustainable impact on planetary ecosystems and creating a fairer society in relation to each other.
The term 'stewardship' is regularly used by western environmentalism. It reflects philosophies underpinning the historical societal relations of Indigenous communities with their respective ecological environments. Their socially-lived ecologies were balanced between the earth as mother (creator and provider) and reciprocal sustainable custodial obligations that flowed from that sacred relationship.
This contrasts sharply with western capitalist notions of the private ownership of nature and means of material production, including individual ownership rights. The emphasis in this framework is to maximise the exploitation of planetary ecologies for personal benefit. This is undertaken by those who are capable of exercising a controlling class power over the natural world (e.g., via land and technology), a power that extends into the social and political world.
Here in Australia, the progressive movement is directly shaped by this tension of trying to transition to sustainability from a colonising European settler history within contemporary global capitalism.
The historical experience of our 140 First Nations peoples, the oldest continuous living culture on earth spanning well over 60,000 years, is instructive. Stewardship or Custodianship of Country has been central to Indigenous cultural being (familial, spiritual, legal, economic and ecological) for these millennia. Colonisation, genocide, dispossession and privatisation of country ripped many of these deep interconnections apart. Redressing this is central to the Indigenous movement for restoration of land rights, restitution, and reconciliation.
Of course, what 'stewardship/custodianship' means in relation to First Nations struggles for self-determination is unique to their experience and cultural being. It is the collective voices of First Nations that will frame and articulate their political course against the contemporary structures of oppressive power. Our obligations as non-Indigenous allies are to support their struggle.
Nonetheless, our diverse progressive community must likewise confront this core power. For us, the social and economic relations through which stewardship/custodianship is actualised dovetails with maintaining ecological balance in meeting social needs through the common social good that First Nations achieved for millennia.
In our book The Extinction Curve we directly address the question of ownership, particularly privatised ownership and the control of our collective global capitalist economy by a small minority of powerful individuals and corporations.
Privatised ownership, with its growth and accumulation imperative, stands in opposition to the very idea of stewardship/custodianship in relation to planetary ecosystems. It is also incompatible with notions of equality and what a fairer society would look like. It asserts the primacy of ownership rights of a social minority over the rights of the majority and the common social good.
Ownership confers power. Private expansion of ownership of land, money capital and means of production of social life (e.g., food, water, energy) expands privately held power across the socio-economic and political spectrum.
The imperative to expand capital is structurally embedded within capitalist economies. Increasing commodified production and consumption to expand invested money capital requires continuous expansion of exploitation of both the natural and social world. Capital expands through and at the expense of unpaid collective labour that is privately appropriated. So, inequality is also structurally embedded.
Stewardship for a fairer society cannot be realised unless the structural imperatives expanding exploitation of planetary ecologies and the social majority are radically reconfigured. Nonetheless, the ownership question remains a vexed political issue across our diverse movement for a fairer society.
Many hold to the belief that utilising the mechanism of the State to mitigate the worst aspects of ecological and social degradation can be sufficient to offset the core power of Capital (individual and corporate). However, taxing and regulating transnational corporations, for example, would not undermine the imperative for unceasing expansion of production and consumption or alter the exceeded limits of our sustainable ecologies. By default we would require several more planets to exercise a continuing form of capitalist 'stewardship' for personal profit.
Likewise, even the most social democratic form of liberal capitalism cannot overcome entrenched structural subordination for the majority classes and social groups that capitalism itself has globally created. More equal or fairer alternatives that conflict with the interests of the minority who exercise core social and political power over our collective lives thus also has impassable constraints by default.
The ecological imbalance and inequalities generated by the capitalist expansion imperative have globally reached a historical intersection of irresolvable crises and contradictions – ecologically, economically and socially. This crossroads generational moment means we can no longer skirt around confronting the urgent question of ownership. Now is precisely the time for debate on what a post-capitalist stewardship should and could look like.
Asserting the common social good through collective public ownership provides the political platform for the sustainable transition required. A deeper democratisation will also necessarily flow from the qualitatively greater social ownership power this will confer.
In our view, democratic nationalisation of the central levers of the economy, starting with the green energy transition, should be a core focus. This is a qualitative first step transition to creating and implementing a collective stewardship of an economy and ecology that works for and is shaped by the needs of the many not the few.
We look forward to being part of that urgent and continuing discussion.
We are passionate about working with researchers globally to deliver a fairer, more inclusive society. This perhaps has never been more important than in today’s divided world.